A review of
by Muffy St. Bernard
Rest assured, the story behind the two thermoses is not revealed in this review...you'll need to see the movie to find out more.
If you were too busy in 1970 worrying about what was going to happen to Rhodesia, you might have missed the opportunity to see Sawan Bhadon in the theatres. Shame on you! Historical events are mere specks in the geological history of earth, but Sawan Bhadon -- with it's mad go-go dancing, heinous flesh-peddlers, beehive hairdos, ticking time-bombs, lemon-supporting moustaches, and tense "milk thermos" puzzle -- is eternal.
It seems to me that the entire world was a little confused about go-go culture, but nowhere were they more confused than in India. Now, I wasn't alive when go-go was at its peak, but I suspect it wasn't just about thrashing and screaming all night in an elegant dining room while ugly men in turtlenecks sweat a lot and look like they're having a bad trip. I bet it was more like scenes from "Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!" which revealed that go-go girls weren't merely sweeties who knew how to dance; they were also women with large breasts who could win a drag race and KILL you.
(Incidentally, a similar mistake was made in 70's movies like "Hair" where the hippies were clean, poetic young people who sang catchy songs and had a legitimate axe to grind with the government, instead of being just a bunch of dirty kids sleeping on park benches and willing to steal a woman's horse in broad daylight.)
Still, we can learn a lot from these strange distortions of history. They tell us more about the people who distorted the ideas than they do about the ideas themselves...and if they entertain us at the same time? Fantastic! The India-Meets-James Bond film genre is intriguing and educational on several levels: beehive hairdos with braids, glittery cat-eyed girls in saris, and a constant gyration of the hips to a mutant jazz beat. The people who made Indian films in this time period weren't necessarily hipsters, but they were creating their own scene that is as fascinating to watch today as a volcano erupting and destroying a small village (especially if the volcano is wearing silver ankle-boots, a tiara, and a feathered bustier).
"Sawan Bhadon" was made in a style that I refer to as "insane architect" (which also
includes such gems as "Chand Kaa Tukdaa," "Jewel Thief" and "Hawas"). I don't think I can adequately explain the "insane architect" style without resorting to an imaginary dialogue between three recently-discharged mental patients.:
THE "INSANE ARCHITECT" STYLE OF FILMMAKING
ARUN: Hey Funtoosh, it's nice to see you're out of the asylum!
FUNTOOSH: Thanks, Arun! How's your wife?
ARUN: Oh, she's out...oiling up the baby, or something.
FUNTOOSH: I see.
ARUN: Hey, here comes Ilakkiyan, from the south!
FUNTOOSH: Why are you carrying a brick, Ilakkiyan?
ILAKKIYAN: I really like this brick. I want to build a house so I can put this brick in it.
ARUN: Great idea! Let's build a house!
FUNTOOSH: We've never built a house before.
ARUN: Of course not, but we've been INSIDE lots of houses before, and Ilakkiyan has a fantastic brick!
FUNTOOSH: Alright, let's go!
ARUN: It's coming along nicely.
ILAKKIYAN: We must build more rooms on the sixth floor, so I can put up this fabulous wallpaper.
FUNTOOSH: But the house is only three storeys high.
ARUN: We'll put the sixth floor on stilts! It will be exciting!
ILAKKIYAN: Let's add a steeple.
FUNTOOSH: Where? There's no place in our building for a steeple.
ARUN: We can put the steeple over there, on that pile of rocks, and connect it to the house via an underground tunnel!
FUNTOOSH: But there's a river in the way.
ARUN: We will connect the steeple to the house with an underground tunnel FULL OF WATER!
ILAKKIYAN: We need to add another fight scene.
FUNTOOSH: Okay, let's design a fight scene room.
ARUN: Why bother designing it? Just BUILD IT.
FUNTOOSH: We'll put it on top of the steeple.
ARUN: Yay, this will be the best house EVER!
ARUN: It's too bad that our house fell down and killed a lot of people.
ILAKKIYAN: My name means "skilled in literature," not "skilled architect."
FUNTOOSH: We're a bunch of knuckleheads.
But the curious thing about these "Insane Architect" movies...is that they make money! "Sawan Bhadon" lasted a year in the cinema, and (from what I understand) launched young Rekha's career...people just couldn't get enough of her sassiness routine, and they loved the gore, kookiness, and confusion of the movie. I think you'll love it too. So forget about Rhodesia, and come hear the tragic tale of Vikram and his beloved:
"Sawan Bhadon" -- much like "Chhupa Rustam" and (again) "Chand Kaa Tukdaa" is the story of a rich landlord who falls in love with a village girl and tries to treat the villagers properly, but is murdered and then replaced by a look-alike who may or may not be the original man. In this case the rich man is Vikram (played by the skinny-legged and incredibly awkward Navin Nishchal...and in a movie FULL of guys with skinny legs, singling him out is saying an awful lot), who returns from abroad to discover that his sister Dolly is a depraved go-go dancer, and his step-mother has a hairdo exactly like the one Ricki Lake had in "Hairspray."
This indecent woman has been ruling over the local farmers and dealing with them in a less-than-pleasant way...stealing their grain and burning down their houses, for instance. Still, Vikram has thrown aside his class concerns (though he's still a little hung up about family honour), and he has time to frolic with a spunky village bumpkin named Chanda (an incredibly young Rekha), who steals his heart after only two dance numbers and one lemon-balancing act.
At this point, the aforementioned "insane architects" start building crazy stuff, and turn an otherwise well-balanced movie into something demented: Ms. Dolly is besotted with Nadan, the director of the "World Culture Center" and an all-around slimebag, whose profession involves selling rich girls to foreigners and stealing all their money. Poor Vikram doesn't like the idea of his sister getting involved in this situation, and he comes to realize that his household has gone to hell since his departure. With the help of Qasimjaan (the most faithful servant ever to have a name beginning with the letter "Q") he tries to put things right: give the poor people back their land, keep Dolly away from the heinous flesh-peddler (of no relation to the one in "Aashiq"), and romance Chanda on the side. In the meantime he tells a woman that her baby looks like a monkey, and the baby -- out of sheer spite -- urinates on his shirt. "But even monkeys can be cute," explains Vikram.
How does Vikram's evil step-mom deal with her rule being overthrown? Well, like any spurned
hair-hopper, she puts a timebomb in Vikram's car and blows him up.
Alright, insane architects, here we go! After the cremation of his already charred body Vikram returns home with a bandage on his head in a scene that owes much to German expressionism and home movies. He shows some suspicious police officers a hairy mole on his back, and is reluctantly accepted as the real Vikram for lack of better evidence against him (hint to millionaires: don't get rid of your moles or extra toes! When somebody kills you and you come back from the dead, you'll need these proofs to deal with the police) Vikram works hard to bring justice back to the land, but everybody, even his beloved Chanda, wonders: could this be the real Vikram? How is it possible?
Don't ask me, ask the nutbars who made this film. They're the same nutbars responsible for a subsequent suspenseful scene where the stepmom needs to pick up a thermos of milk with a wire. Part of the fun of these types of movies is trying to figure out how they can get away with such a crazy, dead-end plot. Sophisticated viewers chuckle to themselves, "well Mr. Screenplay Writer, how are you going to get yourself out of this mess?" knowing full well that when the movie was being filmed, Mr. Screenplay Writer was wondering exactly the same thing, and probably snorting cocaine out of a lady's slipper.
Well, you'll be happy to know that Mr. Screenplay Writer managed to answer all the questions in the end, even if none of it has a lick of credibility. On the way to the finale, though, there are a lot of wonderful detours that add to the feeling that the viewer is in the shaky hands of a slavering maniac. But rather than try to analyze every room in this kooky asylum, let's just take a quick tour of the insane architect's house (and hope that the walls don't fall in on us in the meantime):
|* Vikram #1 gets his faithful servant ("Q") to perform an ancient test: to see if his fake moustache can hold up a lemon. Later on Vikram himself wears this moustache as a pair of eyebrows. Chanda is suitably impressed by this amazing feat, though exactly why is a little difficult to explain.||* Vikram #1 pretends to be a baby during a song with Rekha that -- in all honesty -- must be the sweetest, most gentle and lovely song I've ever seen in a Bollywood film. Though his baby noises during it are absolutely terrifying.|
|* Madan wears a pair of tiny polka-dotted bathing trunks and accidentally gets "Q" to kiss him. It becomes apparent that the censors in India will allow men to kiss on screen...but not a man and a woman. Even so, Madan gets upset.||* God scares Chanda...BOO!|
|* Vikram #2 dresses up like a dancing girl, performs a song, and drugs the flesh-peddlers to keep his sister from being abducted. I can only hope Arjuna did a better job of it than Vikram did, and that he had better legs.||* After spending most of the film displaying undying loyalty to Vikram -- "Q" suddenly swears fideltity to the evil stepmom, removes his servant's clothes, and dons a rakish terrorist's beret. Oh yes, and he buys a thermos.|
The climax of the movie is a 10 minute fight scene which appears to cover a large part of the Indian subcontinent. Vikram and Nadan duke it out on the back of a truck, on a mountainside, and beside a river before the actors finally became so exhausted that they called it quits. Near the end they're not even trying anymore, and it's like watching a couple of guys in a home movie, though Vikram does appear to actually kick Nadan in the head at one point. Finally, all is resolved as the actors leap forward to explain how the impossible events in the film really make sense -- no, honestly, they really do. This is the equivalent of our insane architects standing in the rubble of their failed house, trying to convince you that the house is still standing and -- what's more -- is safe to live in.
Let me make this clear: Sawan Bhadon is a terrible film...but it's the prototypical "so bad it's good" movie, the type that will keep you howling until 3am (if you're in the mood for it, that is). It is deliciously over-the-top and campy. The action and intrigue is pretty much non-stop, and when it does stop, that just means something crazy is about to happen.
"How does it end???" you're screaming "Is it really Vikram? If not, who is it, and what happened to the real Vikram, and how will Chanda deal with it? Does Ms. Dolly get kidnapped by the flesh-peddlers? And why did Qasimjaan start wearing a beret?" Well, I'm not going to reveal any more secrets about the plot -- I don't think I possess the vocabulary to make these sorts of things clear, since I'm not a drug-addicted schizophrenic -- but I WILL show you three more pictures...consider them a sort of puzzle to solve in the wee hours, when you've got nothing better to do: